This post is on behalf of the San Francisco Writers Conference, where I'm giving a talk about The Rules of Writing, and how to break them. The conference suggested this post as an alternative to showing up with 100 photocopied handouts, which would have meant not having enough space for all those little 3oz bottles and an extra pair of shoes (thank you internet!). If you attend the conference and don't receive a handout, this is for you. And for all you other rebel writers out there.
Before we can break any rules, we must first establish some. I think it's important to be mindful of when you are doing something unconventional, and do it with good reason and style. Let's start with Kurt Vonnegut's 8 Rules of Writing:*
1) Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that they will not feel the time was wasted.
2) Give the reader at least one character they can root for.
3) Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4) Every sentence must do one of two things - reveal character or advance the plot.
5) Start as close to the end as possible.
6) Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them - in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7) Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8) Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
I find most of Kurt Vonnegut's rules hard to argue with. Sure, you can cast an antihero as your main character, like American Psycho's Pat Bateman, or pretty much everyone in a Chuck Palaniuk novel, or even Amir from The Kite Runner, but if the reader doesn't find some reason to root for them they will probably stop turning the pages.
Here are Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing:
1) Never open a book with the weather.
2) Avoid prologs.
3) Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialog.
4) Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said"
5) Keep your exclamation points under control.
6) Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose"
7) Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8) Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9) Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
10) Try to leave out the parts the readers tend to skip.
Elmore Leonard's rules are much more particular. Most of these rules are easy to break and are broken regularly.
And to fill in any that Kurt and Elmore missed, here's my own list which includes rules we've all heard before:
Show, don't tell
You can't have nothing happening / bring characters on with action
Don't describe scenery
Don't bog down your opening with backstory
The protagonists shouldn't keep secrets from the reader
Write what you know
These are all wonderful rules. Writing a book is challenging enough, and most writers will find these rules instructive instead of restrictive. Following them can help you tell your story in the most entertaining and accessible way possible. But some of you people are just ornery, or chafe against any restraints, and believe that rules were made to be broken. Fair enough. You think the best way to start your novel is by describing the weather? Have a hankering for prologs? Want to keep key elements of your story a secret until the very end? Prefer to open your novel with a discourse on morality? You can do it, but you'll want to tread carefully. And you'll want to study the authors who have broken these Rules, and figure out how they got away with it.
Rule #1: Show, Don't Tell
The first paragraph of this novel breaks one of the most well-known rules of writing, the ubiquitous Show, Don't Tell. The narrator tells us very plainly that one afternoon his wife climbed an apple tree in their backyard and fell to her death. He states the date and gives his wife's full name, as if issuing a report. This opening is most assuredly Told, Not Shown. Yet somehow it is full of emotion. And I'm guessing that most of you, after reading it, want to read more.
How did she successfully break the most basic rule of writing? First, she chose to flatly narrate, or "tell" a very intriguing bit of information. The wouldn't have worked if she was "telling" about the character brushing his teeth or driving to work. Also, this is a scene that most writers would sensationalize, and her unconventional choice calls attention to itself. If you read carefully I think you can pick up on how the narrator is using this removed style in order to distance himself from the reality of his wife's bizarre death.
Rule #2: No Prologs
This rule is broken often and well. I chose this example, but there are hundreds of others that come to mind, particularly in the mystery and thriller genres. Prologs don't tend to work so well when they feature a character who isn't the main character, or a point in time deep in the novel's (or the universe's) past. This particular prolog works beautifully. The opening line is: "The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation." This prolog is narrated from the novel's future, after the story has ended. In a different novel, Bunny's death would be quite the spoiler, since he doesn't die until at least half way through the story. But here, knowing that Bunny will die, and knowing that the narrator will have something to do with it adds a lot of tension and suspense, and allows the author to take a lot of time developing characters and atmosphere and to linger over details that might make the book drag if you didn't know one of the main characters was going to eventually be killed by the other main characters.
Rule #3: Don't Lecture
The opening of this novel suggests that man must chose between happiness and meaning. Live for the present moment and be happy, or live in your past to find meaning. It should be real buzz kill of an opening, but somehow it's not. How does he get away with this, and how can you? First, he keeps it short. Second, he ties it in directly to what's happening to him at that specific moment, instead of tying it to some vague impending life crisis he's been on the verge of having. The key is that he makes the lecture immediately relevant, and travels very quickly from the abstract to the specific, and to the here and now. The narrator has always chose meaning over happiness. Which is how he found himself waiting for the arrival of the "steamship George Washington, bound from Bremen, carrying to our shores the one man in the world I wanted most to meet." The author has tied the hypothetical to something important happening now.
Rule #4: Don't Open with Backstory
Dennis Lehane opens his breakout book, Mystic River, with what can only be described as backstory. The three main characters are kids, and we hear about what their fathers did for a living, get a description of the neighborhood, where they go to school. It should be boring, but it isn't. Why? He's accomplishing a lot with this backstory. Where another writer might be content to simply set the scene and give us some character background Lehane takes this opportunity to set up a dichotomy that is critical to both his plot and character development. These paragraphs are doing double duty for him. And he does the job quickly, in sweeping strokes: "So while Sean went to Saint Mike's Parochial in black pants, black tie, and blue shirt, Jimmy and Dave went to Lewis M. Dewey School on Blaxston. Kids at the Looey & Dooey got to wear street clothes, which was cool, but they usually wore the same ones three out of five days, which wasn't." In just two sentences you have a clear idea of the differences between these characters, and the shape their conflicts will take.
Rule #5: Don't Describe Scenery / Can't have nothing happening
I'm pretty sure Jim Butcher breaks a couple of rules with the opening of this 7th book in the Dresden Files. He spends the first two pages pondering the story of Cain and Abel and describing his apartment. It shouldn't be compelling, but it is. His apartment is a complete wreck, and he uses the bible story to talk about his urge to kill his half brother. So there's a conflict sewn into the description, which makes it much more interesting to read. What he's done is made the description immediately relevant, and it's serving two purposes - 1) we getting a visual of where Dresden lives, and 2) with each item he tells is out of place or destroyed, we better understand his murderous frustration with his brother/roommate. Butcher also uses humor to keep us engaged. The lesson here is that description works best when it is not limited to merely describing something physical, like a house or a town or the weather, but when it uses these features to introduce a character conflict or some problem that the character is having. On the surface, nothing much is happening here, but after these three pages of description we know enough about these two characters and their issues to want to read more.
Lets now talk more generally about one of the rules, without any more drawn out examples. Vonnegut's last rule is (to paraphrase): Give your readers as much information as possible upfront so they have a complete understanding of what is going on. This is a rule that most writers of speculative fiction will break. If it's not broken well, the result can be a very frustrating reading experience. But many writers break this rule well, and hold back key elements of their world-building until late in the story. Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union and Richard Morgan's books come to mind. Had these authors explained the ins and outs of their worlds up front it would have created a huge infodump that may have had readers skimming. Instead, they waited to reveal the details of how their worlds work, or are different from ours, until it became absolutely necessary to the story that the reader (or the characters) have this information. It's a fine line between making sure readers don't feel lost and dumping a ton of information on them all at once.
To generalize, all these rule breakers break the rules as a way to springboard readers more effectively into their stories. If it's backstory or description or even a lecture they are giving, they make it necessary information for you to understand or more fully appreciate the conflict facing the main character.
I would love to hear your feedback. Which of your favorite authors are expert rule breakers? Or maybe the question should be, do any authors actually manage to follow all of these rules?
*Kurt Vonnegut's rules were written for short story writers, though I think that they can be easily apllied to novels (with the possible exception of the 8th rule). Vonnegut also qualifies his list of rules by saying that Flannery O'Connor broke all them except the first one.